Ever felt the frustration of getting a response in the “wrong” language from your child? If you are parent speaking the lesser used language, then the answer is almost certainly Yes! It is one of the hardest situations facing a parent in a multilingual family and also one of the most common reasons for giving up on raising a bilingual child. After all, it is so easy to give in, especially when you are also battling with all the other pressures of parenthood – why add another stress factor to the mix?
I understand all that, feel your pain and take your point, but please, stick with it – later on you will be so pleased and proud of yourself that you did. Although it might not feel like it now, it takes so much less effort now than later.
So why does this happen and how should you react? There are several reasons which vary on the child’s age and environment – today’s blog is about pre-school aged children. I will get back to older children another day. The start is easy, a baby will accept whatever language you speak. This is also the time when you should get used to speaking your language with your child – it is harder to switch a language at the point when you hear the first precious words. It is recommended that the parents speaking two different languages should become the norm well before the child starts speaking.
The first crucial stage is when the child stays a longer time in a group of monolingual playmates, typically at a playgroup or nursery. Your toddler might start speaking the “wrong” language to you at home as well. The first time this happens, you are probably taken aback, disappointed, not knowing what to do. The important thing is to not change your own language use, but also not make a big deal of the situation. Use gentle coercion, repeat what your child said, but in your language. Lead the child towards the “right” language by asking questions “Did you mean…?”, “Oh, I see, you did/made/saw …” Then listen carefully and show your joy when you get the response in the “right” language. Some parents use the method of pretending not to understand, though I am not keen on that approach, as it may give the child negative connotations to the language.
Research has shown that the more easily a minority language parent switches to the majority language when talking to the child, the greater the probability that the minority language later on becomes a passive language. Passive language use means that the child will understand, but not speak the language. To keep the language active, consistency and perseverance are the words.
Children are generally very pragmatic in their behaviour and the same goes for their language use – whatever feels easiest. It is your task as a parent to steer them back to using your language. This does not mean that you are being a horrible strict parent (no matter what others say!) If your child wants to eat sweets all day, you stop that, don’t you, because you know what is best for your darling.
Consistency and persistence in language use are crucial, but they may not always be enough. You need motivation both for yourself and your child. For your child, us bribery, tricks, whatever works to get over this phase. Buy a hand puppet that only speaks your language, sing songs, read stories, make up games in your language. Make speaking your language fun. Also, remember to always be proud of your own language, your attitude will rub off on your child.
For yourself, keep in mind all the advantages the additional language will bring with it – and reward yourself with something nice each time you manage to stick with it. It may be an uphill battle, but the view from the top is fantastic!
May the peace and power be with you!
© Rita Rosenback 2013
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